My life as non-native English speaker teacher

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When I decided to become a teacher of English, I never thought that the fact that I was not a native English speaker would have any sort of relevance in my profession.

You see, I am Argentinian, and all my teachers of English have been Argentinian too. I attended public primary and secondary schools and learnt English in a private language school. During the first 20 years of my life my only actual conversations with a native speaker were the oral interactions for the Cambridge International Exams, FCE and CPE at that time. I never thought I needed a ‘native English speaker’ in order to learn.

And so, I became a teacher and had no problem finding a job in a private language school first and then in a secondary school. My first encounter with the ‘native English speaker teacher’ prejudice came when I applied for a job at a bilingual school and was turned down on the grounds of not being a native English speaker, nor having attended or worked in a bilingual school before. I was heartbroken, I knew I was qualified for the job!

Since then, the NEST-NNEST debate has become a worldwide issue, with teachers and administrators all over the world taking sides and trying to untangle the different aspects posed by the terms. Along these lines, the traditional higher status of a teacher, just for being a native speaker, has been prevalent in many institutions and organisations, thus bringing about discrimination of ‘non-native English speaker teachers’ with better qualifications.

And with the current understanding that English is an international language, that most speakers of English nowadays are non-native and that there are multiple accents being spoken all over the world, it seems only natural to stop making a distinction between these two types. In any case, I would argue that a ‘non-native English speaker teacher’ has better potential to be a better teacher.

This teacher:

  • has learnt the language and knows what it is like. Knows the areas of difficulty and can relate to the experience of learning a second or foreign language.
  • knows the first language (assuming they are from the same country or spoken language as their students), and in a monolingual class, can take advantage of this knowledge to pinpoint interferences and use the first language to compare and simplify the learning process, where necessary.
  • again in a monolingual context, shares the culture with students, which is an immense advantage.

However, a ‘non-native English speaker teacher’ needs to have an intelligible pronunciation and a solid language awareness knowledge. These are things that can be achieved through practice and study. An additional aspect that should be worked on is cultural awareness, though this tends to be confused with learning all about the UK and the US, instead of adopting a broader look into other English-speaking cultures.

We could have a look at it from the ‘native English speaker teacher’ perspective, but since I am not one of them, I’d rather stop here and invite others to comment.

On the topic of NESTs, you may want to read Marek Kiczkowiak ‘s article “Native English-speaking teachers: always the right choice?”

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